Jazz Vocalist Julia Keefe 'Just Likes to Sing'

A biographical sketch of jazz singer Julia Keefe

“I just like to sing,” Julia Keefe says. “Whatever the tune is I like to sing it.” Julia Keefe has been singing and entertaining audiences since she was six years old. Now 23, and graduating from college this May, she’s already amassed a wealth of experience performing on stage and has a background that is sure to carry her far in the music world. Julia was born in Seattle, the daughter of Tom Keefe and Jo Ann Kauffman. She comes from a line of very successful women. Her mother is president of Kauffman and Associates, her aunt is Hattie Kauffman, a CBS news reporter, and another aunt, Claudia, was the first Native American woman to serve in the Idaho Senate. An enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe; she moved to Kamiah on the Nez Perce reservation with her family to begin elementary school and lived there for six years. “That’s where I started singing,” she says. Though her vocal talent was evident from a young age, she had a speech impediment, and today recalls attempting to sing the National Anthem at a high school football game and being unable to pronounce all the r's and l's in the lyrics. “It’s a funny video to watch now,” she laughed. Her junior high and high school years were spent in Spokane. During those years she began attending the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho. She began a book of repertoire and listened to more and more vocalists, being particularly drawn to the great female jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Clara Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Diane Schurr.

It was also a time when she teamed up with “my wonderful first accompanist, Danny McCollum. We made a couple recordings and he invited me to do a gig with him at Ella’s Supper Club in Spokane.” In 2000, her senior year, she won the solo competition at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. "It was a beautiful way to end my high school career," she says. "I met some great people backstage. That was just so cool. I was just star struck.” During high school, she was constantly researching musical history -- in her words, she was “really hungry for information” -- and learned that Bing Crosby had also attended Gonzaga Prep where she was a student. She saw a quote from Bing saying, “I was really lucky to have known Mildred Bailey early in life.” This opened up a whole new window for her and over the years that followed would become an increasingly important part of her life and performances. “I discovered that Mildred Bailey was a Native American and was from Spokane. (Coeur d’Alene tribal member) She was the first female to sing in front of a big band. I thought that’s really awesome. I would find songs of Mildred’s I really enjoyed and would perform them every once in a while in my gigs.” She started college at Catholic University in Washington D.C., studying musical theater, but realized that the music was totally different from that which had inspired her, jazz, so after a year she transferred to the University of Miami and its prestigious Frost School of Music. But perhaps her stay in the nation's capital was a fateful misfire; it was there that she took a giant step in what was becoming a quest to raise awareness of Mildred Bailey. “I got in contact with the National Museum of the American Indian,” she recalls. “We got into a dialogue and put something together [to honor Bailey]. It was magical how it came together. In 2009 I flew up from Miami and did two shows at the National Museum. It was great, a wonderful show, and we had so much fun. People were so receptive to what we were doing.” The next year she visited New York City with her father, and went to the Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center. “It was beautiful and I loved it,” she said, “But I noticed there were only four women in the Jazz Hall of Fame and Mildred Bailey wasn’t one of them.” Those four are Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith and Mary Lou Williams.

She doesn’t question that those four belonged -- but says she “sort of realized there was a great injustice being done. I feel without Mildred Bailey and what she did, we wouldn’t have Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. She was the one who kicked open the door and made way for those amazing vocalists to get the stature they got.” This past winter, Julia was home in Spokane on break and was asked to do a gig at the Coeur d’Alene Casino. “It was a private event for the Idaho State Legislature and some of the tribal council,” she explained. “I brought some of my Mildred Bailey stuff and said a few words about her, the things she had done for women in jazz and Native Americans in jazz.” “The Idaho Legislature was just completely engrossed," Keefe says. "They were talking like they loved it. They came up afterwards and said they’d like to help any way they could. I told them I was hoping to get Mildred Bailey into the Jazz Hall of Fame.” This March, both the Idaho House and Idaho Senate passed resolutions to honor Mildred and to support and encourage induction into the Hall of Fame. Julia has also launched a website, whereismildred.com, which is essentially a letter to the Jazz Hall of Fame describing Mildred's of great importance and worthiness of inclusion in the Hall of Fame. (A version of the letter was also published here at ICTMN.com.) Julia’s senior recital consisted of nine songs of swing jazz (two of which came from the Mildred Bailey show, naturally), and required her to do some arranging and piano playing -- “sort of nerve-racking for someone who’s not a piano player,” she laughs. She graduates on May 11. “My plan for the future is just to perform as much as possible. I love it. I love singing. I love entertaining people so that’s where my life blood is, where my joy comes from. My plan is just to go out there and do it whatever way I can.” For more information, visit JuliaKeefe.com.